The press release I received announcing a new recording of Carlos Chávez’ 1940 piano concerto by Cedille Records describes the composition as “rarely recorded.” This is one of those rare occasions when I can accuse a publicist of understatement. I just requested an Amazon.com search on “carlos chavez piano concerto” and got only eleven hits. The last two were flat-out wrong (the complete RCA recordings of Sergei Rachmaninoff and the CRI American Masters CD of works by Lou Harrison). Of the remaining nine, four are only available on vinyl.
Back in 1968 I remember hearing John Cage say that the American recording industry had deliberately decided to neglect Chávez in favor of focusing most of their modernist attention, so to speak, on Aaron Copland. I do not know whether or not Cage would have been able to warrant this claim if anyone had bothered to challenge him on it, but this was a time when Cage himself was struggling for attention. Nevertheless, in reading the biographical summary on Chávez’ Wikipedia page, I would be willing to state that the height his recognition in the United States came when he held the Norton Chair in Poetics at Harvard University for the 1958–59 term. (Cage would hold that same Chair in the 1988–89 term, exactly 30 years later.)
At the same time I would also suggest that Chávez was neglected neither more nor less than any other Mexican composer. As a result we are a culture that believes that the only Mexican contribution to music is mariachi. Those who claim a broader view will probably not progress beyond citing one composition, most like José Pablo Moncayo’s “Huapango,” composed in 1941 but not given its first performance until 1950. The conductor for that performance, by the way, was Chávez, leading the Orquesta Sinfónica de México.
This new Cedille recording was released today, and it is definitely a welcome occasion. Through a happy coincidence, the instrumental ensemble is the current generation of the one Chávez himself conducted, now known as the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México. The conductor is Carlos Miguel Prieto, and the piano soloist is Jorge Federico Osorio. The recording also includes three “encore” solo tracks of Osorio playing short pieces by both Chávez and Moncayo, as well as the world premiere recording of a set of variations on an original theme by Samuel Zyman.
The performance of the concerto dazzles with all the virtues of Chávez’ most dynamic rhythms and bold sonorities. It was his inventive approach to rhythm that probably attracted Cage’s attention, since in 1943 he composed a toccata for percussion. It is thus no surprise to encounter his exploration of some of the more percussive qualities of the piano in his 1940 concerto. However, the lyrical qualities are also there, as they are in his solo “encore” piece, “Meditación” (meditation).
The highlight of the solo pieces, however, is the set of variations by Zyman. Zyman was born in Mexico City in 1956, but since 1987 he has been on the faculty of the Department of Literature and Materials of Music at Juilliard. The theme on which his variations are based is an elaborate one, allowing each variation to play out over a relatively extended duration. This is not really “encore” music. Rather, it is yet another example of a highly capable and imaginative Mexican composer, whose music has received almost no recognition in this country, in spite of the major position he holds at Juilliard.
The United States is clearly in need of a major rethinking where Mexican composers are concerned, and this new release from Cedille Records definitely takes a significant step toward such rethinking.